Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What exactly is literary fiction and is it better than genre fiction?

I am taking two classes at university this semester that both involve a lot of creative writing and discussion about the publishing industry. One class wants to focus on literary fiction and poetry and the other class is the complete opposite and has asked the question "What is literary fiction and is it better than genre fiction?"

Literature is fiction that has been deemed to have "literary merit" and can be studied in schools and universities. It is considered more posh and sophisticated than genre, or popular fiction, which is considered not as well written because it is written to a strict formula and is sold to the masses to make a profit.

When I was younger I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I wanted it to be my career. I did not want to be rolling in cash exactly I just wanted to earn enough from writing that I could live comfortably off what I made and spend my entire days writing. JK Rowling was my hero. I loved her books and the story of how she made it big almost felt like a story itself. The poor, single mother writing in a notebook in a coffee shop with her baby asleep in a pram next to her. It felt almost like a Cinderella story. A fairy tale. I wanted to be her so much.

Who decides that a book has literary merit? It's an interesting question because the definition of good writing is something that will change with each passing generation. The works of Shakespeare are considered masterpieces now. They are classics. But they are also genre pieces: they are comedies and tragedies. So in his day he was a genre writer. But now his work is considered literature.

And then there is Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, and stories like the Tales of Earthsea, all of which are fantasy novels but are also considered literature. So is literature just works of genre fiction that have stood the test of time and cemented themselves into popular culture? Is the only difference between literature and genre writing is how well known a book has become? When does something become a classic? In 40 years time will Harry Potter be considered literature?

I get annoyed when university teachers ask me to write literature because I have no idea what they want from me. I write stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. I write stories with characters, description, and a plot. I have been writing since I was 14 and my brain has been wired to work a certain way: no purple prose and my story must be easy to understand and follow! I have written a short story for my first assingment and I am worried it will not "literary" enough to pass. How do you define something as literary? How can a writer declare their work to be a work of literature? Isn't that a bit arrogant? To say "My work has more MERIT than YOUR dirty genre story. They will be studying my book in universities next year."

There is this perception among some that genre writing is dirty and that is wrong to write to make a living from writing. I write first and foremost because I want to do it and when it happens and the words flow through me it is the most wonderful creative experience ever. If I get published it is icing on the cake for me. There is nothing shameful about genre fiction. After all romance is the best selling genre there is and it is a known fact that genre works sell more than literature works because people read books as a form of relaxation and to escape.

So how am I supposed to write a literature piece? I have no idea. I cannot just throw out the door everything I have learnt about genre writing and write some long rambling nonsensical piece full of purple prose and call it good. I have been trained too much to reject purple prose. Writing should a point. A sentence should say something. It should not be a long rambling paragraph with no grammar that gives me a headache because it makes no sense to me whatsoever. If a book does not a beginning, a middle and an end for me I will reject it as rubbish because I cannot understand its structure.

Writing should not be about showing off and using as many descriptive phrases as you can. You are there to tell a STORY.

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